An icy wind blew mercilessly across the barren landscape. Snow swirled in the air in small white tornadoes, spinning their way across vast expanses before dying down. The light of day had begun to fade, and the sun cast a bright orange glow, which reflected brilliantly off the dense snowpack. Snow wolves howled in the distance, their calls high-pitched and longing.
Through this frozen tundra walked a figure draped in thick white cloaks. In the failing light, his form appeared shadowy and indistinct, blending in with the snow around him. Only his thick brown boots served to make his appearance more noticeable. With each step, they sank a couple of inches into the snow.
The man’s face looked pained and bitterly cold, but it was filled with determination. He placed one foot in front of the other over and over again, rhythmically, without thought. His mind was set on his goal. His name was Galden, and he was one of the best wizards in the land of Terra despite his relatively young age. Only a few specks of gray normally dotted his long brown hair, though it looked far whiter than usual in the harsh elements.
The dim light of sunset cast its fiery glow upon a mountain in front of him. The mountain drove up in mighty spires of ice, towering over the flatlands of the North. Galden stared at the jagged mass and felt his heart trying to climb into his throat. This was it. On the other side of that mountain was the Kingdom of Erithor, the man he had set out to kill.
A long, high-pitched howl sounded from a distance. Then another howl, this one closer. Galden swiveled his head to the right in the direction of the sound. A pack of snow wolves had massed, and they were eyeing him hungrily. He could almost imagine the drool falling from their mouths, the gnawing hunger eating away at their insides. Food was scarce in the icy north, and Galden imagined he would probably make a rather tasty meal. Not that it would come to that, of course.
With Galden’s magical prowess, the wolves stood no chance against him, no matter how large the pack or how voracious their appetites. After all, it was only through Galden’s magic that he was not so weak as to make an easy meal. Though the harsh white snow collided with his face in sharp, icy bursts, he could fight its effects to a degree.
Galden had cast a powerful protective shield around himself by using the element of fire. The shield glowed faintly red, though it was hardly distinguishable in the sun’s orange rays. He wondered if the snow wolves would sense the shield, or if they would bolt towards him without thinking, ruled by their disgruntled stomachs.
Another bone-chilling chorus of howls rang out. Galden saw that an additional dozen wolves had joined the pack. Strength in numbers, he supposed. A thin flicker of doubt burnt inside him, but he quickly quelled it. It didn’t matter how many wolves there were; his magic would be more than sufficient.
All at once, the wolves began to move in for the kill. They growled and howled as they set a course for the weary traveler. Galden, for his part, waited patiently as the wolves charged. They grew nearer and nearer, gray coats flecked with white snow. Their eyes glowed a bright yellow with black pupils the size of large olives. The snow wolf in the lead barked sharply, and those trailing it hastened their pace, preparing for the onslaught.
But Galden was more prepared. When the wolves lunged within range, he took a deep breath, concentrated, and pointed a wavering finger at the pack. All of a sudden, a thick orange flame burst from his fingertips. It collided with the front few members of the pack and rose tens of feet into the air in a towering inferno of fire. The wolves howled in pain and retreated, but Galden wouldn’t allow them to escape. With a quick gesture of his right arm, he sent the flames after the running wolves. Their sharp barks and low, murderous growls echoed across the barren landscape like a mournful funeral song.
However, the wolves were not all dead yet. A group of half a dozen had bolted to the left of his wall of flame. He felt a slight weariness in his mind and knew he wouldn’t be able to cast as powerful a spell the next time. Unfazed, he turned his gaze to the members of the pack still clinging to their last moments of life. Their gray-white figures lunged through the tornadoes of snow, set on their prey. They clearly didn’t care if the rest of their pack had died. More food for them now.
Galden pointed a finger and hurled a fireball at the closest wolf. It recoiled and howled piteously, dropping to the ground. A second wolf charged him. He launched another fireball. It collided with the wolf’s face, and the wolf crumpled to the ground in a heap. While he was busy with these first two wolves, the other members of the pack had circled around behind him. One lunged toward him. With a quick upward motion of the arm, he summoned a sharp spire from the ground, using the power of the earth element. The spire impaled the wolf, and it collapsed to the ground, red blood trickling onto the snow.
But Galden wasn’t done. With a quick sideways motion of his right arm, he summoned lightning from the heavens. A loud crack and a bright flash occurred simultaneously, and when the image of the bolt faded from Galden’s eyes, the wolf was dead. Now only two wolves remained. They appeared to glance at their fallen comrades, and Galden could imagine the thoughts running through their ravenous minds. They had to know they were outmatched. However, that didn’t keep them from continuing their assault. The final two wolves charged Galden at once. With his left hand, he summoned a massive jet of water. It burst forth from his fingers and collided with both wolves, pushing them back nearly fifty feet and then freezing them when the cold met the water. The sun’s orange rays reflected dazzlingly off the large crystal of ice.
The quick sound of paws crashing into snow sounded behind Galden. He turned quickly, but he wasn’t quick enough. One of the wolves he had struck with only a fireball had renewed its assault. He fell to the ground beneath the wolf’s weight. Its putrid breath met his nostrils, and he turned his head away. Its claws began to rip at his robes, seeking the flesh beneath them. With an immense effort, he lifted himself from the ground and thrust the wolf’s body to the ground. The wolf rolled in the snow, then quickly got back to its feet. It rounded on him, readying its next attack. Before it could reach him, though, he summoned another lightning bolt from the heavens. The bright white glow and earsplitting crack sounded again, and the wolf soon lay dead upon the snowy earth.
Galden stood for a few moments, surveying the scene. All around him, the pack of snow wolves lay dead. It had been their misfortune to take on a wizard as skilled as he. After he was satisfied they were all dead, he pulled back the robes around his body, which were now shredded in places where the wolf’s sharp claws had pierced them. Stripped to his chest, he could see long thin red marks down the front of his body. They stung, but they didn’t appear to be too deep. He ran a hand over them, and the cuts slowly vanished, leaving only thin scratches. Shivering, he pulled his robes back on and continued on his march.
Since he had used so much magic to battle the snow wolves, he no longer had the mental strength necessary to maintain his shield of warmth. So he felt the icy blasts of snow and the relentless white whirlwinds at their full fury. In no time at all, he felt his extremities begin to go numb. Whether or not he had used up too much of his magic during the battle, he needed to use it now if he didn’t want to freeze to death. With a heavy sigh, he concentrated, and his fire shield flickered back to life. It didn’t feel quite as strong as it had before, but at least it protected him from the worst of the cold.
Up ahead, the jagged peak still jutted forth from the ground like a giant stalagmite. It hardly appeared as if he would be able to climb it. After all, magic had its limitations. Galden could not levitate to the peak. He would have to climb the mountain the hard way, just like anyone else, even other magic users. But the mountain was still nearly half a day’s walk from his present location. Not bothered by this, he continued to place one foot in front of the other. The thick blanket of snow crunched beneath his every footstep.
The sun sank below the horizon, and the faint purple glow of twilight cast a shade upon the landscape. Galden felt a dull ache in his feet, and this ache began to travel up his legs. His magic could do nothing for the pain, so he continued on, legs complaining more with every step. In the new veil of darkness, the mountain appeared even more foreboding than it had before. Of course, knowing what was on the other side only added to the ominous feeling.
Hours after the last vestiges of day faded into nothingness, Galden’s legs finally could take it no more. With a low grunt, he collapsed to the snowy ground. By concentrating his flame shield, he managed to melt an area of snow, and by then launching a series of fireballs at the ground, he succeeded in drying out a large enough spot for him to rest for the night. Satisfied for the moment, he lowered himself gingerly to the ground. Though he wouldn’t consider himself old, it did seem he was getting too old for these kinds of journeys. He ran a hand through the short brown beard that had formed on his face and the upper portion of his neck, and bits of snow flaked off. They fell to the magically warm ground and immediately melted.
Galden would have liked to start a fire, but there was no wood, so he had to be content with the lesser warmth of his protective fire shield. Cold blasts of wind blew through the shredded fabric of his robes, and he began to wonder if he would be warm enough to fall asleep—or if he would die of exposure while he slept. However, this thought quickly faded into the background of his consciousness, for he quickly drifted off to sleep.
He woke hours later with night’s shadow still casting a dark lid upon the landscape. For some reason, he jerked awake and cast his eyes about warily. His instincts were telling him something dangerous was nearby. He rose to his feet and continued to survey his surroundings. His legs were shaking, he noticed, and he tried to stop the shaking. But then he realized his legs weren’t the problem. The entire ground around him was shaking, accompanied by a low rumbling sound.
Galden felt a sinking feeling in the pit of this stomach. He had heard of ice serpents before—Ferus in Altamar had warned him he might encounter them on his journey northward; but of course he hadn’t believed Ferus. Ice serpents were legends of myth, or at least that was what Galden had always thought. Then again, in these troubled times, there was no telling which dangers were real and which weren’t anymore.
The shaking grew stronger. He glanced from side to side. Nothing. The rumble became so intense he had trouble staying on his feet. He cast his eyes about again. Still nothing. The ground began to shake with a violent tremor, and he collapsed to the ground. He tried to lift himself to his feet, but the shaking was too powerful. It was coming from directly beneath him. With a quick surge of strength he rolled to the side. And it was just in time. The ice serpent emerged from the ground where he had been only moments earlier. Its head was at least twice as large as his entire body, and its long body continued burrowing out from beneath the ground. Its skin was of a pale white-blue, a color that nearly blended in with the snow. Light from the two moons reflected in its large white eyes.
The giant ice serpent turned its head in Galden’s direction. Its enormous tongue lashed out at the air, missing Galden by inches. He pulled back, trying to get as far from the beast as possible. According to myth, the ice serpent could freeze a man solid with its frost breath. Galden didn’t want to find out what that felt like.
Unfortunately, the ice serpent did. A white mist issued from its mouth in his direction. He concentrated with all his mental energy on creating a strong fire shield. It was the only thing that could save him. Frost breath collided with fire shield, and Galden felt a blast of cold unlike anything he had ever experienced. It knocked him backward. He fell to the ground, trying to focus his mind on maintaining the shield.
The ice snake lunged at him. Its giant mouth opened, preparing to swallow him whole. He pointed a finger at it, launching a fireball. The fireball collided with the snake, and it recoiled in anguish. Taking advantage of the moment, Galden rose to his feet and sent a giant wall of fire at the beast. A sharp hiss escaped from the creature as the flames engulfed it. Galden stood firmly, legs shaking beneath him with the snake’s movement, and kept the flames going. The snake continued to hiss and thrash about madly.
While the flames were still burning around the blue form of the ice serpent, Galden prepared his next attack. He looked to the heavens and brought his arms about in a large, sweeping motion. All of a sudden, a cascade of rocks descended from the sky, striking the snake with great force. The snake writhed in pain as the avalanche of boulders buried it. Though Galden felt his mental energy waning, he kept his focus strong, his gaze steady. When at last the snake could no longer move, he let his guard down. He collapsed to the ground, sweaty and exhausted despite the bitter cold.
The ice serpent, though still alive, was no longer a danger. At least that was what he hoped. He could never be too sure, so he rose again, summoning his last bit of strength, and sent another wall of fire at the snake. The flames crackled, and the serpent hissed. Its icy scales began to melt, and it writhed pitifully.
Now Galden’s entire body was shaking. Despite his newfound weakness, he decided he had slept enough for the night. Though his legs felt unsteady, he began the long trudge through the snow. The mountains lay in front of him, only a few hours walk away.
As the day passed, the ice serpent faded to the back of his mind. He had felt no strange vibrations of the earth beneath him, heard no odd rumble in his ears. Though he couldn’t be sure he had killed the beast, he could at least be certain it was no longer a threat. As such, the few hours’ walk passed uneventfully. Eventually, he stood at the base of the mountain. Its sheer face appeared almost vertical in spots, but looking closely, he could also see a narrow, though treacherous, path winding its way around the mountain.
The orange light of daybreak crested over the western horizon as Galden made his first step on what would be a long and arduous climb.